Public Protector suspends Free State head after he calls on her to resign

2020-03-12 09:58

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane has placed the head of her Free State office on precautionary suspension, just one day after he wrote an official letter calling on her to resign as the head of the Chapter 9 institution.

In a statement released on Thursday morning, the Public Protector said Sphelo Samuel's precautionary suspension followed "his writing and wide distribution of a disparaging letter which he addressed to the Public Protector on Tuesday".

READ | Public Protector judgment: implications for Parliament

In the letter, dated Tuesday, 10 March, which News24 has seen, Samuel asked Mkhwebane to "save whatever pride you may have left, admit to your flaws and failure to lead this institution, and tender your resignation, in the interests of the organisation and of the country".

Samuel wrote the letter on the same day a full Bench of the Gauteng High Court in Pretoria delivered a scathing judgment against Mkhwebane as her report on a donation President Cyril Ramaphosa received from former Bosasa chief Gavin Watson was set aside.

He emailed it to all staff.

The Free State head explained that many of the employees in the Office of the Public Protector worked there for years and would "jealously guard" its integrity. Samuel himself has worked there for nearly two decades, holding senior positions for most of that time.

He listed various reasons why Mkhwebane should resign, including court cases she lost because of her "personal and/or political agenda".

He mentioned a toxic work environment which Mkhwebane has created.

"You have done nothing but instill fear and intimidation among staff," he said.

On Wednesday, 11 March – the next day – Samuel noted in a letter to the acting CEO, which News24 has also seen, that his computer network account had been disabled, saying he had not been informed of this and considers it "amounting to constructive dismissal".

"Kindly furnish me with the reason that led to this instruction," he said.

Just after 15:00 on Wednesday, a "precautionary suspension" letter signed by Mkhwebane, which News24 has also seen, was sent to Samuel.  

"Your utterances against the Public Protector are very unfortunate and viewed in a very serious light.

"In addition, you are abusing the facilities of the employer to send such correspondence which is not related to your responsibilities. As a Senior Manager you have an obligation to act in good faith towards the employer," Mkhwebane said.

She added Samuel's presence in the organisation would not be "in the interest of the employer and other employees".

"Due to the nature and the seriousness of the utterances, your suspension is with immediate effect."

In the statement on Thrusday, Mkhwebane said Samuel abused the office's facilities to pursue his own "vendetta" and "incite staff to turn against the Public Protector".

"The suspension is not a sanction but an interim measure maent to grant the employer an unhindered opportunity to carry out an investigation into Mr Samuel's conduct," Mkhwebane said. 

She added Samuel is due to undergo a disciplinary hearing on a separate matter.

Affidavit to Parliament

Samuel has previously made serious allegations against Mkhwebane in an affidavit submitted to the speaker of the National Assembly, Thandi Modise. In that affidavit he asks Modise to investigate Mkhwebane's conduct.

This was revealed in an article by News24 in partnership with amaBhungane.

In his affidavit Samuel accused Mkhwebane of mismanagement and other misconduct, including in her handling of the Vrede dairy farm investigation, in which Samuel played a key role.

Mkhewbane dismissed these allegations.

Samuel submitted his affidavit after senior investigator Tebogo Kekana independently approached the speaker in December.

Kekana also alleged misconduct in the Vrede matter, as well as in Mkhwebane’s CIEX/Reserve Bank investigation.

Public Protector spokesperson, Oupa Segalwe, noted the allegations, saying the office would respond on Thursday.

The suspension comes a day after Mkhwebane received a scathing judgement from the full bench of the Gauteng High Court in Pretoria in which the court set aside her report into President Cyril Ramaphosa which found he deliberately misled Parliament regarding a Bosasa donation made to his CR17 campaign.

Read more on:    public protector  |  busisiwe mkhewebane  |  sphelo samuel
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